African Soldiers Fought For France

Grave marker of a West African soldier at the Douaumont Ossuary Cemetery in France

Grave marker of a West African soldier at the Douaumont Ossuary Cemetery in France. We found these graves (segregated and usually in the back) in all the French WWI cemeteries we visited.

I’ve been working on a short story about a Senegalese tirailleur fighting in France during WWI. A tirailleur means rifleman in French, and it’s what the Senegalese soldiers were often called. Senegal and most of West Africa were under French control at the time of the War, and from 1914-1918, French authorities ‘recruited’ about 140,000 men from West Africa who served as combatants on the Western Front. Over 30,000 died. Although a few of these soldiers actually volunteered, most were conscripted through a variety of tactics including coercion, threats of imprisonment for family members, and  force.

I used to think that my great uncle Harry, a farmer from western PA, experienced culture shock fighting in France during WWI. Imagine these soldiers coming from rural Africa with its totally different culture. Most of the tirailleurs didn’t speak French when they were conscripted, and they were taught only rudimentary French and French commands during their service.

In Memoirs of the Maelstrom; A Senegalese Oral History of the First World War (1999 Heinemann Publishing), Joe Lunn presents the results of his research and interviews conducted in the early 1980s of 85 Senegalese WWI veterans. He also researched French documents and other sources to put the experience of these veterans into context before, during and after the War.

Senegal did not gain independence from France until 1960. It’s hard to believe that colonialism was still flourishing into the mid 20th century. Much of the antagonism between Germany and the Allies (England and France especially) in the early 20th century was due to the fact that Germany had a relatively small number of colonies while Britain and France had a very large number. European colonialism (with its political domination and human and resource exploitation) from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries is why a war that started in a European theater really became a world war. Not surprising then that in 1919, Britain, Belgium and France divided up among themselves the German territories in Africa.

One of the most affecting chapters in Lunn’s book was about the use of the Senegalese (and other African) soldiers on the Front. Considering the  racism and the culture of white supremacy at the time, I wasn’t surprised that the French used the African soldiers in hazardous operations and as shock troops as a way to “spare a Frenchman’s life.” What I didn’t realize was that there was no hiding this policy. In the book, Lunn shared tactical drawings from the French War Archives showing the black regiments as first line units of first assault while a white unit was kept behind to “stay their movements if necessary,” basically to keep them advancing and make sure they didn’t retreat.

Lunn also shared from the French War Archives how French commanders at all levels of the French command structure would sacrifice African troops to save French lives. One general during the preparations for an offensive in 1917 insisted on an increased number of African units to “increase the power of our projected strength and permit the sparing-to the extent possible-of French blood.” Lunn shared statistical data showing a much higher percentage of Senegalese casualties in 1917 and 1918 than French soldiers.

Considering that most of these African soldiers were forced into the army of a foreign country (an invading and exploitive country actually) made their sacrifices during the Great War even more heart wrenching.